Groundhog Day marks seasonal turning point

By Tom Seymour | Feb 02, 2018
Photo by: Tom Seymour A woodchuck, the proper name for the groundhog, appears at the bottom center of this photo.

The movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray, has become better known than the critter it was named for. But groundhogs, or woodchucks, are well worth getting to know.

The groundhog, Marmota monax, has no relation to hogs or pigs, but rather, is a marmot. Marmots have four toes on their front feet and five on their back feet. Their tails are always hairy. Most members of this large family, including woodchucks (the preferred name for these creatures), nest in underground burrows or, where the ground is too hard for burrowing, beneath openings in rocks.

Most woodchuck burrows have multiple openings, a safety measure for the canny animals. Woodchucks hibernate in their burrows from late fall through February. But this hibernation isn’t the sound sleep that we may imagine. Woodchucks punctuate their self-imposed winter’s sleep with periods of activity, mostly during thaws and warm spells.

Sometimes the animal will not only bestir itself from its slumber, but will even leave its burrow in early February and briefly venture outside, presumably for a breath of fresh air. And since mating season begins in March, this February outing also serves as a chance to select a future mate. This explains those strange-looking tracks we sometimes see in the snow. Follow the tracks backwards and they will lead to the woodchuck’s burrow.

Transplanted holiday

Our Groundhog Day coincides with Candlemas Day, an old, mostly disused Christian holiday that falls on Feb. 2. Back in Europe on that day, the clergy blessed candles to hand out to parishioners to use for the balance of winter. The length of the candles represented the length of remaining winter. There seems no doubt that everyone hoped to receive short candles.

Once Candlemas Day celebrations fell into disuse, German people selected their native hedgehog to become the weather prognosticator as a substitute for clergy. Then when German colonists settled in America, they substituted woodchucks, or groundhogs, for the hedgehog, a logical choice.

Feb. 2, Candlemas Day, our Groundhog Day, falls right in the middle between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is now that people become tired of winter and seek comfort in hopes and visions of spring. Early February, especially during years when warm spells grace the cold north, marks the time when gardeners get serious about planning for spring, selecting seeds and getting equipment ready.

The Groundhog Day tradition tells us that if the woodchuck sees its shadow upon leaving its burrow, we’ll endure six more weeks of winter. And if the animal does not see its shadow, then we’ll enjoy an early spring. Here in Maine, either prediction works well, since even if the animal sees its shadow, six more weeks of winter would put spring’s arrival in mid-March, plenty early for us northerners.

Sun strengthens

By Feb. 2, daylight hours have lengthened considerably since the Winter Solstice. Even beneath the snow, especially toward month’s end, plants sense our home star’s radiant energy. Come March, early-spring plants have already begun to grow, even under a coating of snow and ice.

Chives serve as a fine example of this. Tiny shoots, generating their own heat, often push through snow to show themselves to the world. A mostly overlooked process helps early plants along. It works this way.

Sunlight penetrates snow and ice and even though it is much diffused, it still works its wonders. In fact, something quite unusual can occur. Milky, diffused sunlight causes snow and ice to melt from beneath. When nighttime temperatures drop below freezing, this thin, icy layer refreezes and in so doing, forms a rudimentary lens. When morning sunlight returns, this lens focuses light and helps warm plant crowns below, making a cozy, warm, mini-environment just above the ground.

It is possible to shovel snow from a patch of chives in late winter and find that the little plants have just peeked out of the ground. Chives are ultra-hardy, and freezing and thawing appears to have little effect on them. This phenomenon gives me far more hope for an early spring than any woodchuck ever did.

Chives aren’t the only plants to awaken sometime in February. South-facing banks, particularly those that have eroded and offer exposed ground, often host coltsfoot, an interesting and useful herb. Called “son-before-the-father,” coltsfoot blossoms, looking like compact dandelion blooms, appear in late winter, on naked, scaly stems. Later on in summer, the blossoms and their stems have long since faded and the horseshoe-shaped leaves present themselves.

But for now, it’s exciting to drive past a roadside bank and see dozens, if not hundreds, of brilliant-yellow blossoms.

Certain herbs persist under the snow, and thyme numbers among these. I’ve gone out in winter and shoveled the snow to harvest fresh thyme for Italian-style tomato sauce. Thyme harvested now has as intense a flavor as it does during the growing season, making it one of the more useful of perennial herbs for home gardeners.

Songbirds active

Sometime in February or early March, black-capped chickadees change their song from the familiar, “dee-dee-dee” to a distinct, somewhat gravelly, “fee-bee.” When the “fee-bee” song predominates, it signals a tentative beginning to the mating season.

An uptick in feeding activity, too, begins in February. It seems that lengthening hours of daylight have a salutary effect upon all things natural. Indoor window gardens, the kind I wrote about in a recent column, take off in earnest, buoyed by the strengthening sun.

Turkey vultures, a non-native bird, began making forays into Maine upon completion of the Interstate Highway system (a new source of road-killed carrion for the vultures to feed upon). Today, turkey vultures are well established in Maine. And they arrive early.

Turkey vultures follow the retreating snowpack. In this way, the birds participate in a molasses-in-January-slow migration north. The birds never seem to venture further north than the snowpack allows. So the earlier the spring, the sooner turkey vultures will grace our skies, soaring overhead, their huge wings held at a slight dihedral.

And it all begins on Groundhog Day. Though snow, sleet and freezing temperatures may persist, spring is on the ascendant, and nothing can stop it.

Tom’s tips

Any winter squash kept in storage should be thoroughly checked for signs of rot. Of course it’s best to perform weekly checks, but oftentimes that isn’t possible.

Even if your squash appears firm and good, it may have begun to lose some of its sweetness. The solution is to cook a squash and eat it. If remains just as sweet as ever, that’s a good thing. But it’s more likely it won’t. And if that’s the case, it’s best to remove remaining squash from storage, cook them, allow to cool and place in freezer bags for storage in the freezer. Cooked, frozen squash will remain as sweet as it was the day it was put up.

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